The artist x artisan conundrum

Copyright issues and legal infrastructure are some of the reasons why artist x artisan collaborations are largely unacknowledged, but dialogue is picking up on how to uphold the integrity of both

Updated - July 04, 2023 12:41 pm IST

Published - June 17, 2023 11:48 am IST

Chirag Kumawat working on a lithograph

Chirag Kumawat working on a lithograph

Waswo X. Waswo’s solo booth at the 2023 India Art Fair caused a bit of a stir. The subject matter was topical, alluding to Godhra, M.F. Husain’s persecution, and Kalki and the Kal-Yug as metaphors for our chaotic times. His intricate paintings combined realism and elements of miniature with his brand of dry humour — from a gouache and gold on wasli paper depicting pages from a burning storybook, to a detailed five-piece suite of a train at a station. 

End of the Kal Yug

End of the Kal Yug

Last Ride in the Wild, Wild East

Last Ride in the Wild, Wild East

The Udaipur-based American and his collaborating team of local artisans walked in on the opening day wearing the signature white fedoras that the protagonist of his works usually dons. But, despite the display of camaraderie, there was change brewing behind the scenes. Shortly after the Art Fair, two of Waswo’s long-time collaborators left to pursue their own careers. (Their names have been withheld for legal reasons.) The catalogue featured two new names: Chirag Kumawat, a dab hand at realistic style painting, and Dalpat Jingar, a border artist and miniaturist.

Dalpat Jingar at work

Dalpat Jingar at work

“I am excited about the new collaborations, but, of course, doubtful too. What has been lost, and what has been gained?” ruminates the artist, who has just finished an exhibition in London this month, and has plans in motion for a show in Mumbai next year. Incidentally, Waswo is one of the few artists who publicly validates the inputs of his artisan collaborators. The majority do not acknowledge them, treating them instead as fabricators and craftspeople.

It Never Works the Way You Think (Three of Spades) with Waswo X. Waswo as the protagonist

It Never Works the Way You Think (Three of Spades) with Waswo X. Waswo as the protagonist | Photo Credit: Latitude 28

‘The artist is the decision maker’

In the dictionary, an artist is defined as “a person who creates art [such as a painting, sculpture, music, or writing] using conscious skill and creative imagination” and an artisan as “a worker who practices a trade or handicraft”. This hierarchy is starkly visible in the art world.

Over the years, many artists, including Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and the late K.G. Subramanyan, and younger contemporaries such as Anindita Bhattacharya, Gopa Trivedi, and Saira Wasim have drawn on the miniature tradition. Other regional art practices such as the Kalighat Pats (popularised by the likes of Jamini Roy), and warli painting, pattachitra and gond art have also been approached by artists. And while some have been integral in giving artisans a fillip — the late Jagdish Swaminathan, for example, was a key figure in bringing forward Gond-Pardhan artist Jangarh Singh Shyam and Bhil artist Bhuri Bai — most haven’t.

“It becomes hard for artists to acknowledge their [artisans’] collaboration because of copyright issues and legal infrastructure. Also, the hierarchies are already entrenched in the art world,” explains gallerist Renu Modi, the director of Espace in New Delhi who represents Waswo X. Waswo. By and large, the copyright to a collaborative artwork is held by the artist because they contribute infrastructure, finance and are usually more skilled and confident in dealing with the legal side of the issue.

Renu Modi

Renu Modi

And sometimes, when acknowledgment is given, imitation becomes a worry. Artist Arjuna is collaborating with Kangra artisans to render his raga-based paintings in the miniature style. He works with acrylic on linen, and has fused Kangra with the Tibetan Buddhist thangka style of painting to render non-traditional imagery, including the Buddha meditating in forests of demons and wild animals. “When the Kangra miniaturists mentioned that the works were getting a tremendous response, and that they were being requested to make large canvases, much like the ones that they were assisting me with, I realised that intellectual property issues need to be addressed formally, or else there would be imitation,” he says.

Arjuna with a kangra painting

Arjuna with a kangra painting

While his intent — to incorporate the traditional arts, which have become craft because of repetition without innovation, into contemporary art — is encouraging, he shares that “if the traditional artists begin imitating our innovations and supplying replicas of these paintings, then this approach becomes problematic and non-viable”.

Recently, I was also drawn into a discussion about the art-craft union while interacting with U.K.-based artist Keith Khan, who showed his new media artworks, Sugar Cane Cutter Legs, at Nature Morte last month. He shared that while art is a process with many inputs and influences, “where actual collaboration has taken place I have always acknowledged and given credits”. Besides his upcoming projects, including one with British fashion house Burberry to create textiles for the Leeds Festival in August, he is contemplating dipping into Indian art and culture, and taking on a local collaborator.

“In contemporary times, artists who are working in a collaborative set up do recognise the input of the artisans and their craftsmanship, but the recognition is undermined because of restrictions of institutional frameworks and legal systems and of course, the status quo.”Bhavna KakarDirector, Latitude 28

Is change in the offing?

Things seem to be slowly shifting now, with a few artisans asking for better recognition, treatment and pay. I recall Ranjita Dhal, who worked with artist Shivani Aggarwal on the Barbil Art Project (BAP) in Odisha a little over a year ago, not being shy in coming forward with her ideas and inputs to create the on-site installation in sabai grass. Bijay Parida, the award-winning pattachitra artist, also weighed in during his collaboration with Anindita Bhattacharya. 

Shivani Aggarwal and Ranjita Dhal (far left) at the Barbil Art Project in Odisha

Shivani Aggarwal and Ranjita Dhal (far left) at the Barbil Art Project in Odisha

Shivani Aggarwal with Ranjita Dhal

Shivani Aggarwal with Ranjita Dhal

The biannual collaborative art event was conceptualised by Jagannath Panda (and organised by the Utsha and Arya Foundations) to bring artisans into the foreground. “Without support, they were losing interest and love for their own craft,” he says, adding that BAP’s events have encouraged many artisans such as Dhal to collaborate with artists on national and international projects.

“There are multiple models that exist — from contemporary artists employing artisans, giving creative input [or not], to recognising artisans as equal collaborators and sharing credit and splitting the sales equally. Each model has its inherent challenges, but eventually the artist is the decision maker.”Anubhav NathCuratorial director, Ojas Arts, which presents contemporary art works of both artists and artisans

More dialogue on the issue is needed, where the integrity of both is held in a respectful and empowering position. Even today, artisans shy away from asking for their due because they do not want to deal with the legalities required for an equitable sharing of intellectual as well as monetary space. “We often find it more comfortable to stick to what we know and earn from it,” says Chandrasena Majhi, a paddy craft artisan, while Purusottam Mohapatra, a papier-mâché artist, adds, “Often, we just work with artists like contractors and, as long as we get paid, we haven’t cared about ‘acknowledgement’. But it would be nice to see that change.”

The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a visual artist by night.

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